Slut-Shaming and the Attractiveness Factor

For the majority of my grown up life, I’ve been deeply skeptical of feminism. Mind you, I don’t want women to be barefoot and pregnant, despite my blog title. I believe that women and men are equal in value, even if they are fundamentally different in nature. In fact, one of my earliest college memories was a moment in Lit Trad IV, when I nearly jumped over the tables in a fit of rage after a boy insisted that “Sonia is a filthy whore.”

When he said that, my cheeks went red like I had just been slapped, and I kind of felt like I had. “She’s selling her body to provide food for her siblings,” I said in a low, dangerous tone. My professor looked at me in alarm. I probably looked a little frightening, with my hands planted on either side of my open book, palms pressed into the table, fingers splayed, my whole body tilting slightly forward. All I remember is watching the kid watch me, seeing his lip curl in disgust, and mentally thinking, don’t say what I know you’re going to say. Just don’t do it. Don’t be that person.

But he did say it. “She’s still a dirty whore. Doesn’t matter why she’s a slut. A slut’s a slut.” I fired back, “so if you were her brother, would you refuse to eat the food she buys with that money, then? Would you help her find other work? Would you work yourself so she didn’t have to sell her body?” He smiled then, and said slowly, “No. I’d eat the food, then I’d slap her across the face and tell her that her sin is disgusting in the eyes of God and man.”

It was at that point that my professor bodily removed me from the class, since I was halfway over the table with my hands balled into fists. Outside the class, she hugged me and told me that she completely understood and was also upset, but there were some people who only want to provoke and condemn, and words were wasted on them.

He was the exception, though, not the rule. I was sure of it. I was sure of then and I’ve been sure of it ever since. And seeing my husband do battle with the feminists in the years between that moment and this have left me without one iota of sympathy for anything that reeked of feminism. He’s been accused of misogyny more times than I can count because he’s a straight white Catholic male. I’ve been sure, just sure, that feminists see sexism wherever they want to, that it’s not really there, not really, not anymore. And women who talk about sexism in language, well, they should hang out with this girl:

(start it at :50 to avoid the “B” word)

YouTube Preview Image

Lately I’ve had that assurance rattled. Mostly because my online BFF, Kass-tacular, has been having some feminist angst. I sort of brushed it off at first, like, oh, she’s just moved to NYC and is swinging the pendulum in reaction to her ORU days, just like I’m swinging left now in reaction to my uber-right days. It happens to us all, it’ll correct itself, it’s an Aristotelian phase.

So when the Patrick Madrid Twitter-swear-gate happened, and the focus was immediately on the perceived sexism behind his tweets, I brushed it off too. I really didn’t think there was anything sexist behind him calling out women for swearing. After all, as I told Kassie, he was born in a different era, when men didn’t curse in front of women because chivalry, that’s why. And that’s dead and gone and makes me sad because I hate trying to wrestle doors open on my own with a baby on my hip and two toddlers in a double stroller.

Then two things happened. Clare Coffey pointed out, on Twitter, that “the idea that it’s somehow okay to specifically call out women for swearing is close to the definition of sexism.” Cari Donaldson, in a separate forum, pointed out that the language he used was specifically based on appearance. Jess has a good run-down of the conversation on CathoFeminism if you want to see all the tweets about the topic of women swearing. Some of the descriptions used about swearing female Catholic bloggers were “disgusting,” “major turn-off,” and “(they) have really let themselves go.”

This has been making me uneasy. Ever since this happened, I’ve started noticing the same trend…everywhere. Men judging women for what they do based on “attractiveness.” Women judging women for what they do based on “attractiveness.” Me judging myself for what I do or write based on “attractiveness.”

Last night it all kind of blew up for me when the tweets and status updates about Beyonce’s halftime performance started pouring in. Here’s what I wrote on facebook:

I did not watch the halftime show or the game, thank God. But I’m appalled by these status updates and tweets. Everyone commenting on how “disgusting” or “not sexy” or “unappealing” Beyonce was is part of the problem. The problem of judging a woman based on her appearance. What happened to objective morality? What happened to virtue? Why is no one appealing to right or wrong, but only their own sense of what’s “hot?” Shaming someone into behaving a certain way by telling her she isn’t attractive is what got us here in the first place, where women feel they have to cavort half-naked on a stage in order to be deemed worthy of praise.

Some of my friends seemed to think that I was defending Beyonce’s apparently obscene show. I wasn’t. What I was trying to point out is that turning off the TV or using this as a moment to teach your children about virtue, modesty, our culture’s objectification of women (which women are in some ways responsible for, y’all) is one thing. I’d argue that it’s a good thing. This:

is something quite different, and something very bad.

And it’s pretty much the same thing that happened on Twitter.

It is wrong to call out a woman for doing something because it’s unattractive. This type of behavior has nothing to do with the objective ideal of beauty. It’s all about trying to get a woman to change her behavior because you (or someone else) doesn’t find it attractive.

It’s wrong because that is the same attitude that got us here. Men and women have been changing the expectations for women’s behavior for years, maybe even decades, maybe even centuries based on what’s attractive. Men are not held to the same standard. No one says to a boy, “don’t cuss, it’s not attractive.” They say, “don’t cuss, it’s wrong.” (Personally, I say, “don’t cuss, because you don’t understand what you’re saying or how and when to use those words.” But then, I’m raising heathens.) But it’s so common to hear someone say to a little girl, “don’t cuss, it’s ugly” that I didn’t even blink twice at it on Twitter.

This is a problem for a lot of reasons. It’s a problem because we’re holding our boys and girls to two different standards of morality based on a subjective standard instead of an objective truth. If you’re thinking, “oh Calah, stop overreacting. It’s just a figure of speech, it doesn’t effect real life,” think again. A Catholic school in New Jersey just implemented a no swearing rule for girls only.

It’s a problem because by carelessly using this kind of language, we are still teaching our girls that their worth is measured by how they appear. The criticism of women swearing was not concerned with an objective sense of right or wrong. It was a criticism that relied entirely on the premise that swearing negatively affects a man’s attraction to women. Patrick Madrid literally said, “when women swear, I find them less attractive.” And that was echoed by men and women all over Twitter. “Yes, yes, it’s so disgusting for a woman to have a potty mouth! Yuck!”

This is disturbing. Now that I’m really seeing it, I’m really disturbed by it. Why is this okay? Why is it permissible for anyone to judge a woman’s actions based on how it affects her level of appeal? It’s just like the “pants are for sinners” post, where it’s ostensibly about the relative morality of women’s fashions, but if you scratch the surface you see that what’s really being said is, “I like to see a woman in a skirt, and since I’m a good, God-fearing man, you women owe me that visual pleasure. So put a skirt on and I’ll find you more attractive!”

For many years, I tortured myself over my appearance. I still do. Whether we want to admit it or not, our culture shapes women to believe that their value is measured by how they look. And it’s not just the secular culture. Religious cultures do it too. Pat Robertson thinks that women whose husbands drink are at fault because they’ve let themselves go. There it is again, “let themselves go.” Like I’ve let myself go with my cursing? Somehow, I’m unable to torture myself over that one. It’s jarringly liberating, in a way. After 28 years, I’m finally at a place where the fact that a man I’ve never met finds me unattractive because I swear fails to shame me into a bout of mental self-laceration. Two years ago, it would have been a different story.

 I do not want my daughter to grow up in a world where the boys and men around her constantly judge her morality in terms of physical attraction. I don’t want her to hear things like, “waiting till marriage is sexy” or “it’s a turn-off when girls smoke”. I want her to hear things like, “your virtue is worth too much to throw away on someone who is not going to commit his life to you.” I want her to hear someone say, “smoking damages your body, and you’re too precious to damage for recreation.” I want her to grow up in a world where men and women talk about issues of virtue and modesty in terms of objective truth, not in terms of sex appeal. I don’t want my daughter to be shamed into acting virtuously because if she doesn’t, some anonymous internet guy is going to tweet about what a turn-off she is. I don’t want my daughter to spend the better part of three decades torturing herself over her appeal to men before she can finally get enough distance to see things objectively. She deserves better than that. And if I ignore these things because I’m tired of feminism, or I think it’d be swell if there were more chivalry around, I’m failing her.

  • http://geeklady.wordpress.com GeekLady

    Part of the problem here is that you can’t philosophically divide beau from goodness or truth. Then we go and use the same word to describe female attractiveness., which makes it easy for false equivalence to be drawn. This is dumb. Being plain isnt a sin (if it is, I’m going to hell). This gets further complicated by mushiness of ‘attractiveness’. Virtue certainly attracts us… but so does a good sense of humor, or enjoying the same books, or someone’s outstanding carne guisada, and other purely subjective things. Attractiveness is a mixed bag of objective and subjective. These comments on vice being unattractive wrongly place the emphasis on the unattractiveness, not the vice. They state, in essense, that it is the unattractiveness that matters. From there, it’s easy to slide into ‘unattractiveness is vice’, an inversion of the minor premise.

    Tangentially: Cuss words are ugly, ugly as words in and of themselves. It doesn’t matter who says them. They are useful, because there are some ugly things in the world, and they need ugly words to describe them accurately. But as words, they are still ugly, right down to their sound.

    • http://geeklady.wordpress.com GeekLady

      beau = beauty. That is the dumbest autocorrect I’ve ever seen. Sorry I didn’t catch it.

    • calahalexander

      I love everything about this comment. I agree with you on cuss words, even, except that I do not think asshat is ugly, I think it’s fun and fantastic. You’re brilliant, as usual.

      • http://geeklady.wordpress.com GeekLady

        Bottom’s actor wore an asshat. He got it at his asshaberdasher’s.

    • http://cfavideo.wordpress.com/ Connie Anderson

      Thanks for your article! Earlier today, I posted a verse on someone’s FB page from the Old Testament, Isaiah 3: 16-26. I’ve been thinking about it all day. The Holy Spirit?

      From these verses, it is easy to see how some in our culture today are prone to judge the “Haughty Women of Zion,” although this ancient prophesy was aimed mainly at Jerusalem. This attitude has been around for thousands of years!

      Later, I posted a brief reflection on the artwork from my family parish Church (Sacred Heart of Jesus, Baton Rouge, LA). If a young woman grows up with depictions of how Jesus Himself showed kindness and respect to women (i.e. Mary Magdalene, the Woman at the Well, Mary Margaret Alacoque, Our Lady) , she has greater protection against abuse in all its forms!

      Then, someone posted your article! It certainly struck a chord! Thanks!

      Thank you, Jesus, and Bl. Pope JP II , who championed the “Feminine Genius!” And thanks to the many men in my life, who have formed themselves after Our Lord’s Sacred Heart!

    • http://cfavideo.wordpress.com/ Connie Anderson

      Thanks for your article! Earlier today, I posted a verse on someone’s FB page from the Old Testament, Isaiah 3: 16-26. I’ve been thinking about it all day. The Holy Spirit?

      From these verses, it is easy to see how some in our culture today are prone to judge the “Haughty Women of Zion,” although this ancient prophesy was aimed mainly at Jerusalem. This attitude has been around for thousands of years!

      Later, I posted a brief reflection on the artwork from my family parish Church (Sacred Heart of Jesus, Baton Rouge, LA). If a young woman grows up with depictions of how Jesus Himself showed kindness and respect to women (i.e. Mary Magdalene, the Woman at the Well, Mary Margaret Alacoque, Our Lady) , she has greater protection against abuse in all its forms!

      Then, someone posted your article! It certainly struck a chord!

      Thank you, Jesus, and Bl. Pope JP II , who championed the “Feminine Genius!” And thanks to the many men in my life, who have formed themselves after Our Lord’s Sacred Heart!

  • KellynCA

    Beyonce is just another vulgar, raunchy & oversexed no talent. She’s made millions thinking between her legs.

    • calahalexander

      Here, class, is exhibit A in how to slut-shame.

  • http://decentfilms.com SDG

    So I have to admit: While I didn’t watch the Super Bowl or the half-time show, when my wife showed me a photo on her iPhone of the half-naked Beyonce, my immediate reaction was: “Not attractive.”

    Why did I do that? Is it sexism? Maybe, but I’m not convinced yet.

    I think what I was doing was reacting to the perceived aim of the display — i.e., to appeal to male interest — and undermining it on that level. To say “It’s immodest, it’s immoral” — that seems kind of beside the point.

    In principle, someone who dresses and behaves like that doesn’t care if you disapprove. She wants you to watch — and, more, to want to watch. If you disapprove but want to watch anyway, so much the better: the allure of the illicit, the provocative, the scandalous.

    To pronounce such a display unattractive is to deny its power, its allure, which is its raison d’etre. It is to pronounce it a failure. It’s not a temptation to be resisted; it’s not even tempting.

    I’m a film critic, so here’s a critical analogy: When a movie holds your attention and interest, when it works as entertainment, you can still raise moral objections; but if you can pronounce a movie boring, you have a much clearer path to dismissing it.

    Having said that, I see your point about extending this language to other areas of behavior. One can object to labeling swearing in a woman “unattractive” on the grounds that there’s no reason to think a woman who is swearing was trying to be attractive. It elevates attractiveness to a criterion of disproportionate importance, as if it were the key measure of every aspect of a woman’s being and behavior.

    However, when it comes to behavior that clearly is aimed at attracting, then perhaps the situation is a bit more complicated, the verdict “not attractive” potentially more justifiable.

    • calahalexander

      Maybe I’m not being clear. Obviously, it’s silly to suggest that anyone saying anything is/isn’t attractive is sexist. What I’m saying is that it’s wrong to use the word “attractive” in place of a moral judgement. It is sexist to say that a woman is wrong for doing something because it’s unattractive. I don’t think your reaction was sexist. If you were saying that to prove that Beyonce is morally in the wrong, it would have been.

      • calahalexander

        (name redacted by admin), just below you said this:
        (content redacted by admin by request)

        That’s exactly what I have issues with. The fact that you couched it in terms of “your most disgusting lust-filled times” clearly shows that you’re objecting to this on moral grounds but using attractiveness to do so. He’s not saying the same thing. He even says, “to say it’s immodest, immoral is kind of beside the point.”

        I’m not trying to pick on you. I found your Tweet useful in pointing out a trend I’ve noticed. I don’t think you’re intentionally being sexist at all. I’m trying to point out a trend that I’m just now realizing, myself. This is not some sort of slam-fest. Just like I do not believe for a second that Patrick Madrid was intentionally trying to control women by threatening them with his disgust, I don’t think you’re doing that either. I do believe that this type of language has far-reaching implications that I myself have ignored till now. My only purpose in writing this post is to point that out.

    • http://decentfilms.com SDG

      I don’t think you were unclear, C. I’m just pointing out that reasons for pronouncing a display like Beyonce’s “unattractive” may be more complicated than holding women to a different standard of morality. (Another comment down yonder from Sarah offers an overlapping but rather different interpretation, suggesting that it could be a “coping mechanism.” Perhaps it could, but it could also be a declaration of nothing to cope with.)

      Certainly I agree that unattractiveness makes a display morally wrong. Presumably an actually enticing display would be morally worse!

      • http://geeklady.wordpress.com GeekLady

        Calah is objecting to the use of “not attractive” as a proxy for “morally wrong”, and especially to the fact the it occurs almost exclusively applied to women. Vice is legitimately unattractive… but the important part is that it is vice, not that it is unattractive.

        Using attractive/unattractive as part of a moral judgement against a woman is manipulative. It’s a below the belt shot, a deliberate attempt to cause pain.

        • http://decentfilms.com SDG

          When the target is Beyonce, most people crying “not attractive” are probably not in a position to try to cause Beyonce “personal pain,” and don’t mean to. Something else is going on, there.

          • http://geeklady.wordpress.com GeekLady

            Just because a shot is futile doesn’t mean it isn’t one.

          • http://decentfilms.com SDG

            As a general theory, that seems unpersuasive to me, GeekLady. Certainly I’m reasonably confident that, in my own case, when my wife showed me the photo and I pronounced Beyonce’s outfit unflattering, there was no motivation on my part, however futile, to cause Beyonce personal pain. I believe I can also disavow Sarah’s ‘coping mechanism” interpretation, at least for myself in this instance.

    • calahalexander

      Okay, I see what you’re saying, and I think you’re right. And I think this point goes into the larger argument of beauty vs. attraction-because I certainly don’t think it’s sexism at work to point out when something is beautiful, true and good, or when it’s not. The problem is that our language conflates all these things. We need to distinguish between “attractive to me” and “objectively beautiful”. Likewise with “that’s aesthetically unattractive” and “that’s morally unattractive”. The best way to that, I think, is just to drop “unattractive” period when we’re talking about questions of morality.

  • http://grace-filled.net jen

    The way I read (name redacted by admin) tweet was that Beyoncé’s behavior was unappealing, not her. I don’t think it has anything to do with her appearance — I think his comment is specifically based on her actions.

    • calahalexander

      I know, Jen. That’s kind of the point I’m trying to make. He’s judging her actions to be wrong but using physically-based language of attraction to do it. So it’s not wrong because it’s wrong, it’s wrong because he doesn’t find it attractive, even at his “most disgusting lust-filled times”. See the problem?

  • http://beatencopperlamp.blogspot.com Sarah

    Right on! Recently I’ve been realizing I am a feminist because DUH! Theology of the Body. If we Catholics talk about “dignity of the human person” and recognizing someone’s spiritual value beyond mere physicality, then attractiveness as a moral standard is bogus. The sick, the poor, and the elderly etc. aren’t always “attractive” – do we value them less? God made us “to know, love, and serve Him,” not to cater to the visual desires of our neighbors.

    I think the “unattractive Beyonce” comments come from two camps. There are the “Ugh, she’s not thin” morons who can’t appreciate the reality of someone who recently had a baby but is incredibly athletic. Then there are the “Your dirty dancing doesn’t lure me” crowd. I see this as a coping mechanism for overt sensuality. These men might be trying to say “Lalalalala you can’t sway me from chastity, you powerful temptress! Vanity of vanity, all is vanity I’ll hold out for a woman of faith” etc etc.

    In my opinion that halftime show was pretty tame compared to past years. There were no elaborate costume changes, and B’s leotard was clearly engineered to hold up to vigorous dancing without any “wardrobe malfunctions.” The songs she chose did not have very provocative lyrics. Obviously no one remembers the insanity of Madonna or Janet Jackson in past years, just like they won’t remember this one in about 2 weeks.

  • http://charmingdisarray.blogspot.com/ Io

    Yup…I’ve notice this kind of stuff for years, and have been called all kinds of beautiful names for pointing it out. Glad to see that others are noticing and speaking out against it. I wrote a post on men complaining about women swearing a while back: http://charmingdisarray.blogspot.com/2012/07/namby-pamby.html

    And like I commented on your Patrick Madrid post, men calling out women for not being attractive to get them to do what they want needs. to. stop. now.

  • Bad MF

    Agree with lots of this. It annoys me when men frame disapproval in terms of attractiveness. Like that should be a woman’s sole focus in life.

    To be fair to some men though, I think sometimes they mean to describe something else and just use the wrong words. In the recent First Things lament about allowing women in combat, Joe Carter used a snippet from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to describe the sentiment I mean. From the article: Father Christmas tells the sisters that he has given them these weapons only so that the girls can defend themselves “in great need . . . for I do not mean you to fight in the battle.” Lucy is offended, believing her bravery is being questioned, but he tells her, “That is not the point . . . battles are ugly when women fight.”
    The word ugly is used here, but its not about attractiveness in the visual sense, I think it means that there is something here that contradicts the perceived nature of women. That instead of a woman’s distinct virtues being displayed, perhaps openness, or vulnerability, the opposite is showcased, a hardness or even callousness. (Much more meaning can be found in this example, but I am focusing on this one aspect for this discussion). Sometimes I think this is what men might be getting at, that cussing or smoking, makes a woman take on an aura of hardness that is contrary to the particular virtues of women.

  • Michael

    I did watch the half time show; it was a classic American burlesque show. Change the instrumentation to a pit orchestra and it could’ve been pulled off at the Zigfield Follies. If you really felt befouled by watching that then you either live in a cloister or your shaming. That’s my opinion and we all know how much an opinion is worth ;-)

    My mother was from San Antonio Texas and was reared in the military. She used the phrase “ugly” about a myriad of behaviours for both her sons and her daughters. Ugly behaviour and ugly speech were not welcome, and regarding: the speech, it was not limited to swear words, but the context and tone of what was said. In that context, the world “ugly” really meant “diabolical”. It took me ’til my thirties to figure that out.

    I totally agree in general with what you are speaking about. Men and women should be held to the same rigorous high standard; so if you are going to tell a female her behaviour is ugly, you’d best be telling a male that as well. And it should all be couched in a context of love and instruction to the child.

    I know Patrick Madrid, I go to St. Patrick, Columbus Ohio with him. He is not a misogynist ( I know you weren’t calling him that, but I know some people take exception to his tweets).

    Thanks for the essay! I’m going to share it with my daughter. Timely and sage advised as always!

    • calahalexander

      Michael, my grandma is the same way with using the word “ugly”. I don’t object to it there, when it’s widely used to apply equally to male and female behavior. It’s more of a cultural adjective in those situations. When it’s specifically aimed at women, though, I get a little miffed. And I don’t think Patrick is a misogynist…I mean, this is something that I’m just now seeing, myself. I think we just need to start being aware of the power our words have.

  • Michael

    Oh! I forgot to mention that there are chapters of the “Holy Name Society” popping up everywhere now. These were one of those nasty “pre Vatican II” associations that were discouraged by enlightened clerics like Cardinal Mahoney. Anyway, these used to be for men only because of the license of the job environment and the swearing it encouraged. It was kind of like an anti-swearing support network. Tragically, women now qualify for this club. If you don’t have one where you live, look it up and start one.

    The Dominicans at St. Patrick recommend the recitation of the “Divine Praises” to discourage swearing. For your dilectation:

    The Divine Praises
    Blessed be God.
    Blessed be His Holy Name.
    Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
    Blessed be the name of Jesus.
    Blessed be His Most Sacred Heart.
    Blessed be Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
    Blessed be the Holy Spirit, the paraclete.
    Blessed be the great Mother of God, Mary most holy.
    Blessed be her holy and Immaculate Conception.
    Blessed be her glorious Assumption.
    Blessed be the name of Mary, Virgin and Mother.
    Blessed be Saint Joseph, her most chaste spouse.
    Blessed be God in His angels and in His Saints.

    May the heart of Jesus, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, be praised, adored, and loved with grateful affection, at every moment, in all the tabernacles of the world, even to the end of time. Amen.

  • kara

    I think it would be more helpful to explain why Calah’s interpretation is different from your actual meaning. Demanding an apology without explaining how that’s not what you meant looks, well, small, when all Calah did was take information that is already available publically. Other media outlets (like Cracked, where people get paid to write) do that all the time.


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